Wendy Kawabata is an artist who has travelled and lived for periods in diverse and far-flung places and is now based in Hawaii. Time spent in each place taking in the life, climate, landscape and culture emerges in unexpected and satisfying ways in her work. Most consistent is the deliberately controlled scale that allows for a practice that is flexible, mobile and ready. While holding on robustly to its integrity Kawabata’s work it is never finite and remains open to the possibility of change and adaptation according to circumstance. In particular works like Stemma (2007), Preoccupation (2009), River At Arnes (2011) and Grow in Light (2013) are designed to expand from a suitcase rather than having the need of a large crate.
This flexibility allows her work to hook on to, and launch away from, a variety of starting points. In the past Jane Apperly wrote that Kawabata’s ‘practice is always conducted within a space that is traditionally seen to reinforce feminine, maternal, and domestic roles’. Kawabata’s work has regularly featured handcrafts such as knitting, sewing and crochet for which feminine associations are inevitable, but she is rigorous in avoiding the pitfalls of being overly derivative by drawing from a much wider conceptual base. The landscape, the environment, love, and more than a sparkle of dry wit feature prominently and symbiotically with the needlecraft. Her work has a human inquisitiveness that gently nudges at familiar associations but it is humour, tenderness, and an eye for nature that Kawabata foregrounds against the more weighty themes of gender politics, heritage, history and environmental sustainability.
For Kawabata needlecraft is a means to an end used for its forensic and analytical possibilities in her lateral thinking process. Aspects of colour, texture, functionality and association can be moulded to fit her poetic register and her skill lies in the precise balance between concept and form. It is a rigour evidenced by her experience as a Professor, dictating an exhaustive and demanding interrogation of the possibilities of her own creative process.
Grow in Light (2015) exists a kind of living map of Kawabata’s consciousness. Comprising a constellation of hundreds of individual crochet flowers this work must be uniquely assembled for each new installation. Resembling snowflakes, the flowers are made in a palette of silver, white, grey and charcoal - each with its own unique pattern and size. Appropriately, the work was initiated in Iceland in 2011 and mirrors the temperate mood of the In the Land series - also from that period. Over the last number of years Kawabata has chosen to construct this work in both free form and as a squared off ‘painting’. There is liberating sense of freedom in the work’s potential to exist in the world infinitely.
Kawabata’s current practice has turned to the more traditional form of landscape painting. ‘In the land’ comprises a series of infinitesimally miniature depictions of the vast terrains of Iceland, drawn from her experience on a residency there in 2011. Each one is a tiny elliptical ink painting of the memory of a landscape, expertly conjured with delicate and sublime detail. It feels and appears exactly as a memory should - as though it has just formed in the frontal lobe and fallen onto the page. Kawabata captures utterly the nature of memory and how it stays with us through the narrative of life. Some of these works have an uncanny resemblance to the Irish landscape (V, XII, XV) the low light, cold grey blue skies, persistent damp and a sense that they always look to the West. The In the Land and Grow in Light series are being made now, several years since her time in Iceland, and many more years since her time in Ireland. It is proof that a sense of place and time inhabits the mind in perpetuity but its poetry is negotiable and transferable.
Wendy Kawabata is an artist who has absorbed her world and filtered it into a practice that is intuitive and temperate. Her oeuvre comes across as disciplined, deeply felt, distinctly personal and hard won. It is the absence of cleverness and sense that it didn’t come easy that makes it most precious.